Nick Cave: Until, MassMoCA

esse arts + opinions 90, spring 2017

Nick Cave, Until, installation detail, 2016. Photo: James Prinz

Nick Cave’s expansive installation at MassMoCA, Until, transmits the same energetic charge as the performances that he is known for. Every cubic metre of the cavernous hall is filled with colour and movement: thousands of shiny metallic lawn ornaments hang from the ceiling like strings of beads. They capture the light and send it every which way through the space, the structure of which is further dematerialized by a reflective floor at the entrance. After weaving through this odd forest of sorts, we come to a clearing; overhead are two gigantic crystal clouds. The effect is enchanting, and curiosity compels us to climb up the long ladders: what could possibly be on that shimmering cloud? Abundance! Hundreds upon hundreds of ornamental birds, butterflies, and other animals are gathered as if in a lush heavenly nest. After we descend again to the terrestrial horizon, the exhibition leads us through a colourful beaded topography of mountainous proportions.

Although the sensorial impact of Until is strong, overall the exhibition is more semiotic than haptic. Prior knowledge of the cultural legacies of Cave’s materials fills them with resonance and allows the installation to surpass its “wow” effect. Of the twenty thousand wind-spinners, for example, a good proportion depict handguns, bullets, and targets, which speaks to a troubling collision between childhood imaginative play and real-life street violence. Rainbows and peace symbols are beaded right into the net-like cliff, lending the army-like enclosure connotations of warmth and shelter. They also make a graphic connection among the vastly different worlds of prehistoric cave painting, urban graffiti, and digital emoticons. The mass-produced ornamental sculptures inhabiting the cloud are perhaps the most semiotically laden: ceramic animals speak of the advent of kitsch in the history of the bourgeois; black-faced garden jockeys are stark reminders of objectification and oppression; gilded golden pigs conjure up images of hedonistic pleasure and ostentatious religious rituals; and the millions of crystals connote both cheap costume jewellery and royal luxury.

Collected and compiled by Cave, these already legible units of meaning are composed into a complex syntax of cultural tension, resistance, and change. Take, for example, the small deer and its racoon companion that inhabit the shimmering forest. The animal of prey is shielded by a lace-like armour of beads, and what at first look like multiple deep bullet wounds are in fact an outcrop of colourful little lampshade-like protrusions. This small still life, like the exhibition as a whole, demonstrates Cave’s optimism that a lasting cultural transformation can be mobilized through the power of the imagination.

Overall, Until offers viewers an inside view of how historically loaded materials can be reappropriated and reinscribed in an effort to envision a brighter future, full of whimsy as well as justice. Up high on the sparkling clouds, the blackfaced jockeys figure as dream catchers. It is as if they have captured in their elaborate butterfly nets the workings of the collective imagination that, however much racism it may still contain, is not fixed: it is within an individual’s and a culture’s capacity to change it.

 

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Participatory Libraries and the Possibility of Making a Mess

esse art + opinions 89 (winter 2017)

 

Artist Cliff Eyland, who grew up in Dartmouth, will produce some 5,000 pieces of artwork for the new library in downtown Halifax. (NEIL MCARTHUR)

Cliff Eyland, preparing Library Cards, Halifax Library, 2014. Photo Neil McArthur.

Libraries are becoming leisure destinations and personal hotspots. Far from the connotations of uptight and dusty, they are now “zones” for “connecting”—to experience-driven information providers, digitally distributed publications and social media, as well as to an increased range of programs specifically designed to engage the community. Neither “patron” nor “user” seems to be the word for the clientele of the contemporary library, who may just as likely be chatting or surfing as reading or researching. Perhaps “library-goer” is more apt. It emphasizes the passage through the library space, which is no longer (and never was) a simple container for the free exchange of books but, rather, a sort of machine for defining one’s identity.

 

But before enumerating the gains of this paradigm shift, let’s take a brief (nostalgic) account of the losses: the loss of card catalogues, stiff-backed wooden chairs and “sexy librarians”; of adventuring through dimly-lit stacks and the spark of delight when the book right beside the one you were looking for proves to be the one you really need; of the feeling of humility when the pile of books on our desk is greater in mass and height than we are ourselves (not to mention the relative weightiness of the knowledge the books contain); of plodding through sustained arguments rather than clicking through modular, easily digestible digital sound-bites; and perhaps most notably, of actual paper and ink books, which are now disappearing into the mysterious underbelly of the new hypermodern library only to be retrieved by staff or robots.

 

But let’s not get all sentimental, for the times, they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics Who prophesize with your pen And keep your eyes wide The chance won’t come again And don’t speak too soon For the wheel’s still in spin And there’s no tellin’ who That it’s namin’ For the loser now Will be later to win For the times they are a-changin’[1]

And that’s a good thing. Bob Dylan meet Martha Stewart. In the rhetoric of equal access and social justice that is often attached to libraries, this hypothetical introduction is not so absurd. But the “spatial imaginary” of libraries is a far cry from their “spatial reality.” Much like the conversion of royal art collections into public museums in the nineteenth century symbolized the fall of the ancien régime and the transfer of power into the hands of the people, libraries have symbolized democracy since their first inception. However, both libraries and museums were often housed in impressive buildings that reflected the authority of the governing institution and, in reality, only a small percentage of the public passed through their doors. Only in the last few decades are they starting to shed their aura of privilege and power. Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel prize for literature is an odd harbinger of the twenty-first-century library: the rebelliousness and dissent associated with him is now bound, catalogued and shelved, effectively re-packaging 1960s oppositional politics as a style that holds mass appeal. Times have indeed changed but the question remains hanging: has any actual power been transferred from the “winners” to the “losers”?

In the visual arts, the institutionalization of critical practices continues to be met with great reservation, as does the collapse of the high/low distinction. However, not only are both co-option and collusion necessary for an artist to gain visibility and currency (monetary and cultural), but also, the possibility of launching a critique from an external position is now theoretically suspect. The oppositional practice of “institutional critique” now operates as a genre within the art world, not extrinsic to it. As Jennifer Tobias of MoMA asks, “What is the nature of ‘messing’ in the fully participatory museum? How do contemporary ideas about the social role of art museums change relationships between participant and observer, between collusive and critical actions, between what can and can’t be messed with?”[2] The growing list of artist-in-residence programs in libraries (recently including the Stuart Hall Library as well McGill’s Osler Library), speaks to their openness to being messed with and the same questions apply: in the new “participatory” library, what is the nature of the participation? Is it possible to intervene in the library’s procedures in more than a symbolic way?

Cliff Eyland has been making a “mess” in libraries since the early 1980s, long before their holdings began to be digitalized. Since then he has been inserting drawings the size of standard file cards for library-goers to find by surprise when perusing the card-catalogues.[3] Library-goers were given no instructions as to what to do with the cards should they chance upon them; they could keep them, leave them or move them to another book or another library. In 1997, Eyland was invited to insert File Card Works Hidden in Books at the Raymond Fogelman Library at the New School University in New York. In 2005, he was asked to stop by a new librarian who said, “We pay people to take out what people like you put in.”[4] Indeed, like the unwanted marginalia of a weary or distracted student, Eyland’s drawings annotate the books in which they are inserted and speak to everyone who comes across them in an intimate and unpredictable way. According to one reviewer,

Eyland’s endless intellectual curiosity has been channeled into an artistic bibliophilia that recognizes the book not only as a repository of ideas but also as an object, with its own look, feel, even smell. Eyland’s work celebrates the eroticism of ideas, challenging cultural stereotypes of libraries as hushed, sterile centres of controlled and regulated information. In Eyland’s view, libraries are places of chaos and entropy, home to sudden, idiosyncratic urges, quirks of taste and all kinds of fertile and promiscuous knowledge-swapping.[5]

In the new Halifax Central Library, these intimate “promiscuous” encounters have been turned into an official public display: five thousand file card sized paintings are permanently installed on the library’s wall as part of the provincial art in architecture program (Library Cards, 2014). The library, which includes a couple of cafés and a space for people coming off the street, has become an active social hub in the downtown core and has succeeded in drawing in people who would not previously have gone to libraries. In this context, Eyland’s conceptual practice can no longer be thought of as an intervention; rather, the artist is one of the many participants invited to mingle in the new library space among the new library-goers.

The understated sensuality of Eyland’s hidden file cards is one of the losses incurred when libraries switch to automated storage and retrieval systems that are kept out of view. Elisa Lee and Adam Hinshaw’s intervention at the library of University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), is an interesting “digital” counterpoint to Eyland’s “analogue” work. During their residency at the library, the artists asked themselves how they could make visible the workings of the university’s state-of-the-art underground Library Retrieval System (LRS), which stores books in 11,808 steel storage bins. They asked, “What happens when you visualize the interaction between organic human behaviour and a rigid mechanical storage system?” The answer came in the form of 11-808 (2014–15), a playful video installation of the comings and goings of books requested from the LRS. Each time an item is moved, a virtual catalogue card flies in or out of the bin where it’s located. The books’ titles also appear on the screen, allowing viewers to track what subjects are most in demand. Interestingly, even though the books are classified according to topic using the standard Dewey Decimal System, they are stored in the LRS according to the height of their spine. Consequently they may land in many different bins among books of many different topics. As such, 11-808 imaginatively questions what new types of “promiscuous knowledge-swapping” might occur between the books themselves as they mingle beyond the limits of their colour-coded classifications.[6]

Similar to Eyland’s, Lee’s and Hinshaw’s work, Julia Weist’s understated interventions use humour to question the library’s procedures, specifically that of deaccessioning books. In an early project titled With Drawn I (2007), she collected discarded library books and displayed them on a simple shelf in the gallery. With Drawn II (2007) is a modified discarded wooden card catalogue filled with the file cards of five thousand books deaccessioned from the libraries of twenty-five states. In a similar project she exhibited discarded and borrowed copies of her own romance novel, Sexy Librarian.[7] More recently, Weist questioned Google’s feature called “In-depth articles,” which was launched in 2013 after a study reporting that “only 10 percent of searches required more than a quick, fact-based answer… Algorithmically speaking, content should be homogenous, popular, recent, shallow, and short.”[8] Weist asks,

What could this mean for art? I’d like to think that an art history major turned software engineer is having a private chuckle somewhere in California. Because how could someone at Google not have realized? With the In-depth feature, the company has essentially created a math machine for determining canonization.

Jeff Koons has In-depth results, Janine Antoni does not. Cindy Sherman, yes, Robert Gober, no. I Googled a few new names, which turned into making a list, which turned into creating a database. I wanted to know what the Google canon looked like.[9]

In Industry vs. Machine: Canonization, Localization, and the Algorithm (2014), Weist organized her research in a wheel-like “information visualization” organized according to how artists appear to have been selected by the “in-depth” algorithm. As you scroll around the wheel, the statistics of specific artists appear in pop-up text boxes. Just like the Library of Congress can decide whether or not a subject is important enough to merit its own subject heading, thereby impacting the circulation of ideas on that subject, recognition by Google—or the lack thereof—can significantly impact an artist’s career. In both cases, it is the interface that determines what does and what does not get sanctioned as “important knowledge.”

Rather than idealizing the library as a quintessential democratic space, each of these interventions showed it to be a site of both rigid order and creative invention. They also demonstrate the art world’s current interest in participation and social engagement, and its institutionalization of critical practices. Ultimately, for these artists the library functioned more like a “muse” for their work than a site of contestation. Hal Ingberg’s 1% commission at the new NDG Cultural Centre bypasses critique altogether and engages library-goers in a more sensorial way. As you walk through the space you may notice the shifting colours of a large glass wall, which has a film installed on it that refracts the light in variable ways according to the viewer’s position. The installation, titled Chromazone (2016) suggests that libraries and their “goers” are in a constant state of transformation and mutual invention.

According to Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who first published The Experience Economy in 1999, we have now entered the next phase, the “transformation economy.”[10]  That is, customers want to be personally transformed (physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually) by the products, services or experiences they invest in. Libraries have been apt to embrace this cultural shift (or business strategy) and offer a plethora of ways to transform oneself. In this light, Ingberg’s Chromazone functions like a signpost for participatory libraries: it envelops library-goers in a quiet phenomenological experience that suggests a spectrum of reciprocity between the space and the viewer. On the spectrum between criticality and collusion, however, it is resolutely the latter.

Quasi-spiritualism aside, the idea of personal transformation is not new to libraries, given their long-standing, almost mythical association with bottom-up self-directed learning. But whether or not the new participatory libraries are now, at last, actualizing this imaginary upward transformation is still up for debate. Certainly they have responded to the economic shift toward “transformation,” as well as the ideological shifts toward “openness” in education and “participation” in general. The egalitarian, highly utopian rhetoric that equal access somehow equates equal opportunity creates a “spatial imaginary” in which all participants are innately self-defining and “all participants’ voices will be equally valued, and that the working of systemic power and privilege around categories such as gender, class and sexuality will be suspended.”[11] However, as Lesley Gourlay argues, unfettered access to library resources does not in itself critique or challenge the power dynamics at play in any particular institution. The interventions by Eyland, Lee, Hinshaw, and Weist provide us with opportunities to identify, visualize and question certain aspects of how libraries function, yet they make no real mess. In the new participatory library, there may be more participants than before in both number and diversity, however, at the end of the day, their participation is more symbolic of agency than actually catalyzing the transfer of power from “winners” to “losers.”

 

[1] Bob Dylan. “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” Song Lyrics. 1963. http://bobdylan.com/songs/times-they-are-changin/

[2] Jennifer Tobias, “Messing with MoMA: Critical Interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939–Now,” May 26, 2016, http://post.at.moma.org/.

[3] NSCAD Library, 1981; Raymond Fogelman Library, 1997–2005; National Gallery of Canada Library & Archives, 2013.

[4] Cliff Eyland, in conversation with the author, November 2016.

[5] Alison Gillmor, “Cliff Eyland,” Border Crossings 34, no. 2 (May 2015): 90–91.

[6] In conjunction with 11-808, the artists recorded an imaginary conversation between the books in the LRS titled Conversations (2015).

[7] Julia Weist. Discarded library books I collected; Library books I wrote; Library books I discarded; Discarded library books I wrote; Discarded library books I collected, plus diplomas (2006–2013).

[8] Julia Weist, “Industry vs. Machine: Canonization, Localization, and the Algorithm,” Red Hook Journal, March 3, 2015, http://www.bard.edu/ccs/redhook/industry-vs-machine-canonization-localization-and-the-algorithm/.

March 3, 2015. http://www.bard.edu/ccs/redhook/industry-vs-machine-canonization-localization-and-the-algorithm/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Joseph Pine and James Gilmore. The Experience Economy [updated edition]. London and New York: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.

[11] Lesley Gourlay, “Open education as a ‘heterotopia of desire.’” Learning, Media and Technology 40, no. 3 (2015): 314.

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Kendra Wallace: Field of Appearances

Esse Arts + Opinions 88, Fall 2016, 32-39.

Kendra Wallace, The Field of Appearances, Installation View, Trianon Gallery, November 2015 to January 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Kendra Wallace, Field of Appearances, Installation View, Trianon Gallery, November 2015 to January 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Kendra Wallace: Field of Appearances

Despite all the mechanical artifacts that now surround us, the world in which we find ourselves before we set out to calculate and measure it is not an inert or mechanical object but a living field, an open and dynamic landscape subject to its own moods and metamorphoses.

— David Abram1

 

 

 

There’s something about the genre of “landscape” in the history of Western art that makes it continue to operate as if it were neutral — or, worse, pastoral or picturesque — even though we know better. That something, it seems to me, is the way in which the eyes of the West continue to consume and appropriate nature for sentimental — and let’s face it, profitable — ends. If we think back to the hierarchy of genres in the European academies during the Enlightenment, landscape conveyed ownership, a timeless Classical past, or, later, a Romantic yearning to experience the forces of nature that engulf us, without ever actually being engulfed. No one feared, for example, that Caspar David Friedrich’s lone wanderer might actually fall off of that precipice and disappear into the murk, just as no one feared (back then) that the Tahitian women bathing in brilliant fields of fuchsia in Paul Gauguin’s primitivist reveries might one day jump out of the canvas and say, “Hey, ça suffit!” But with a little push from feminist and postcolonial theory, they did, and in their defiance they revealed the conceptual framework for what it is: the power of the West to cloak its biases in the prettiest of languages in order to facilitate the acceptance of the conventions (and political policies) operating under their cover.

 

Neither the sublime-picturesque, nor sexism, nor the aggressive colonization practices of European nations in the late nineteenth century, have anything to do with Kendra Wallace’s intervention in the landscape genre. So why this false start? Because, in these examples, the security of the identity of the “seer” is assured by overpowering its subject matter: the tumultuous clouds of mist are framed in a way that keeps them separate and under control; the “primitive” women are equally kept under control by being objectified as such — that is, “othered.” Herein lies a problematic that is far more compelling than the rehearsed art-historical critique. In her photographic practice, Wallace strives to go beyond critique and ask, how can one surrender the control that an artist has over her object of study; how can one sink into the inseparability of subject and object and depict their co-implication; how can Westerners bypass the ingrained ways of seeing of the West in order to experience the visual field as something to actively partake of rather than “take”?

 

Wallace’s recent series of large-scale photographs titled The Field of Appearances2 is an astute — and also profoundly meditative — response to this set of questions. And with a camera in hand, the dilemma is further exasperated: the device’s speedy and greedy mono-oculus “capture” allows for little flow between subject and object, and the space of the land in front of its lens almost instantly turns into a flat and sharply delineated picture. It is seized. Or we could extend Louis Althusser’s term “hailed”: the land, pulsating and alive and in excess of signification, is interpellated by the camera as “landscape.”3 Wallace’s photographs actively work against both this technological foreclosure of meaning and the more general lens of Western appropriation by interfering in the operation of the camera, by concentrating on colour rather than image, and by emphasizing materiality and full sensory perception.

 

I will elaborate on each of these points in turn, but first a brief description of the exhibition: fifteen large sheets of colour — ranging from soft coral and amethyst to a vibrant, almost pure magenta, and from pale lime to the deep, rich hue of a goldfinch — hang slightly off of the wall, revealing the gentle undulation of the photographic paper. Interspersed between these “colour fields” are photographs of golden barley fields of the same scale and material (Juniper Baryta paper), which gives the work a sensuous, slightly glossy quality, like skin. It is surprising to learn that these various intensities of colour are actually photographs, not paintings, and it is equally surprising to learn that they are photographs of flowers. A flower is perhaps the most difficult life force in nature to experience without sentimental overtones and without the desire to literally appropriate it by bringing it home, where it — this life force — effectively becomes a still life. Photographs of flowers typically function similarly, arresting the flow of time in order to capture the pregnant moment of full bloom, when nature’s potential has been obtained and its demise is not yet in sight, and then carefully preserving it behind glass as a keepsake of whatever occasion the flowers were intended to celebrate. Yet in Wallace’s exhibition, their life force is uncontainable, spilling out over the edge of the frame like the colour waves that radiated from the flowers themselves, hovering, palpable, and pulsating.

 

In this work Wallace deftly bypasses the (egocentric) assumption that flowers are inherently “for me” by compromising the authority of the photographic oculus and the strictures of modern vision. Rather than using her camera for its capacity to capture every minute detail, Wallace removes the lens entirely, thereby redefining photography’s “macro” function as one of opening-out rather than closing-in. This radical opening allows both time and light to enter in a far less controllable way; it allows them to bounce around and refract inside the body of the camera, filling it with unpredictable play. Gone are the straight lines of single point perspective that cut up Euclidean space like so many parcels of land to be conquered in time (and by time). Without its “eye,” the camera can no longer measure space and keep it at a safe distance: its open body is continuous with its surroundings, sensing and absorbing all the waves that come its way — in this case, waves of colour. As such, both technically and conceptually, Wallace’s working process makes objectification impossible.

What is most compelling about Wallace’s work, however, is that it goes beyond interrupting the naming and seizing of its object — flowers — and thereby goes beyond simply critiquing objectification. It goes beyond by trying to push through to the other side and see what flowers would look like in the light of intersubjectivity rather than objectivity. It is on this point that I’m hooked, because to experience Wallace’s photographs is to experience a release of the conceptual strongholds that keep all binaries fixed in their established hierarchies and, by extension, the status quo. Mind over body, ideality over materiality, subject over object, the list goes on and on. Vision, for example, continues to be prized over all the other senses due to its alleged proximity to objective knowledge, even though visuality has long been defined as a field that is fraught through and through with cultural conventions and signifying practices.4 Wallace inserts herself into the visual field (a garden full of flowers) in order to subvert the privilege and power allocated to her as the seeing subject, the power to designate an object (a flower). Wallace levels the playing field, so to speak, by removing the lens and allowing the flowers to look back. The resulting colour intensities are not “of” the flowers at all; that is, they are not an abstraction. Rather, they are “of” the encounter. And rather than presenting this encounter as a breakdown in language, Wallace celebrates its “asignificance” as a source of potential in the sense of the word that we learn from Deleuze and Guattari: the perpetual potential of becoming-other.5

 

If we accept this proposition, the world starts to spin, as it did for Jean-Paul Sartre’s protagonist Antoine Roquentin in Nausea when he could no longer distinguish between his own body and the old gnarly roots of the chestnut tree he was sitting beside in the park.6 The line between subject and object became indiscernible to Roquentin and, likewise, it is difficult to discern the line between “me” and “not-me” in Wallace’s photographs. This brings us back to a discussion of landscape, the picturesque-sublime, and primitivism, because each took hold in a context of fear and fascination — fear that the modern Western subject might lose his power to own and control the world around him and cease to function as its centre, and fascination with the more obscure moments when his mastery seems to falter. Wallace embraces such “obscurity” for the philosophical challenges that it implies, rather than turning it into an image and thereby calming the waters. In brief, she opens her full sensory apparatus (much like she opens her camera’s body by removing its lens) in order to allow for a material flow between herself and the world she finds herself embedded in. This emphasis on the materiality of her own body, of the camera’s body, of the flowers and fields that she photographs, and of the resulting photographs that hang in the gallery, is equally an emphasis on affect. Wallace’s series of radiating colours provides an antidote to the kitschy sentimentality of flower photography (or melancholy, if we consider Roland Barthes’s lamentation) in favour of a radical inter-“being” devoid of personal emotion.

 

To conclude, consider the four photographs of barley fields, windswept and golden, like silky flaxen tresses, with all the cultural connotations that the simile implies. They seem to call for viewers to wander into them, close their eyes, and curl up to sleep in the breeze, warm and safe as though in the bed of a private dream. The horizon is so far in the distance that it is somewhere out of the frame altogether, imperceptible except in one case, in which there is a small glimpse of sky along the top edge. This is the only ground line that Wallace offers in the entire exhibition, the only space where time can be measured, the only photograph that can be classified as “landscape.” It is also the only photograph that invites viewers to penetrate, providing a line of sight for their eyes to follow and a trampled-down dell for their bodies to occupy. As such it may seem contradictory to her entire project, but I see it more positively: it is the tipping point where a critique of the landscape genre falls by the wayside and a sincere investigation into a (post-)human’s elemental connection with the land begins. The other eleven photographs in the exhibition embody this connection in a way that opens onto delight rather than enlightenment, rapture rather than capture. Thereby they liberate potentialities that can edge Western eyes into seeing “other-”wise. •

 

1 — David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York and Toronto: Vintage Books, 1997), 32.

2 — Trianon Gallery, Lethbridge, Alberta, November 7, 2015 — January 24, 2016.

3 — Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001 [1970]).

4 — Hal Foster, ed., Vision and Visuality, Dia Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture 2 (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988).

5 — Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

6 — Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New York: New Directions, 2007 [1938]).

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Chris Kline: Local Condition, Diaz Contemporary

Chris Kline, studio shot, November 2014, courtesy of the artist.

Chris Kline, studio shot, November 2014, courtesy of the artist.

Preview: Chris Kline, Local Condition, Diaz Contemporary, Nov. 2014 – Jan. 2015

The quiet, visual intimacy of Chris Kline’s painted surfaces has been consistent in his work, and consistently oscillatory. The Dividers series of 2011-12, for example, revealed the slender, straight wooden cross-bars of the stretcher underneath translucent poplin, which was painted with minimal vectors of colour only perceptible enough to interrupt the voyage into the depth of the canvas. The effect is paradoxical: the untreated poplin and evidence of its supporting structure allowed no such imaginative leap, and yet it did. Perhaps this spatial paradox – between illusionism both painted and dreamt and a relatively unaltered materiality – is where one can begin to unravel the tension that ensues from viewing Kline’s work.

The tension, I should specify, is not at all taut: it is highly pleasurable, like a playful negotiation of candor and seduction. The paintings “function” as instigators of this push-and-pull, thereby viscerally implicating the viewer into their warp and weft. Take for example the rectangular surfaces where Kline demarcated a square space, and that’s it: two distinct shapes held in equilibrium through a careful choice of colour (Untitled, 2013-14). The viewing experience of these works, however, has little to do with the mind’s eye of geometry. Rather, the paintings pull on the body of the viewer to line him/herself up with the center. The lines of single-point perspective do much the same but it is the difference in effect that is salient: we are compelled to get in line, so to speak, but once we do we are abandoned to an open field that the eye cannot master. In effect, we are left looking at a speculative space rather than an array of our visual possessions. In this series, the XYZ axes of rational values are reabsorbed into the body rather than externalized and imposed onto the landscape.

The series Local Condition, 2012-14, does not exert this pull of a perceptual center. Here, the surface of the canvas is brushed with nuanced gradients of sky-like colour, If the framing of squares plays with focus and focal points, this deployment of vertical rectangles plays with peripheral vision and infinity. By zooming-in we can graze their highly tactile surfaces but such part-by-part looking is only a reaction to the enigmatic openness the paintings present. Given the topological emptiness of the surfaces, their physical boundaries seem arbitrarily set, as if literally excerpting a piece of sky from the earth’s atmosphere. Here our position is unresolved, yet-to-be-determined, and euphorically in-process.

Also presented in this exhibition are discrete works on paper, square and grey (Tailing, 2013). They reveal a surface so subtle that it appears to be a photographic image rather than an actual index of Kline’s working process. The paper has been bathed in a solution of ink and then hung to dry; consequently, a border-line has formed on the bottom edge where surface tension prevented the liquid media from spilling over. Kline’s intervention is in plain sight here, and yet it is so minimal that the ground literally shines through. It asserts its receptivity, like light-sensitive silver’s mirroring of factual appearance. “Fact” and “facture” is ambivalent in Kline’s work. His process – which is equally evident in his paintings – is of doing and doing again in a spirit of doubt and willful tenacity.

Returning to the earlier discussion of push-and-pull, Kline’s paintings also function like records of the viewer’s engagement. This charges them with a personal sentiment akin to the testimony of a visual experience that stays visual. This is their greatest strength: Kline’s paintings are precise and articulate and yet irreducible to words, and, as such, in their intimate silence, proclaim the ongoing necessity of probing the embeddedness of the I/eye in a thick, lived spatiality. Merleau-Ponty would called it the “flesh” of the world. Even without explanation, the term resonates with carnality rather than the abstract coordinates of a digitalized, globalized space of information. Is Kline’s work therefore a compensatory act of reparations for the time spent at our respective terminals? The title of this exhibition, Local Condition, might suggest as much. But the overall tone is a mix of persistence and resignation that I would align more with a pragmatic exploration of visuality – more with a search for some sort of fullness in the vertiginous spin of simulacra.

Perhaps here, now, I’ve come full circle to the intimacy with which this discussion began: Chris Kline’s spatial negotiations ground our desiring eyes in embodied weight, thereby compelling movement from our own motivational centers. What is at stake, as such, is “I,” the most intimate and conflicted of spaces.

Anja Bock

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Contemporary Art and Spatial Experience, McGill University

Contemporary Art and Spatial Experience

Studies: Modern Art and Theoretical Problems 04 (ARTH 479)

Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University
Dr. Anja Bock, Fall 2014

Seminars: Tuesdays 14h30 – 17h30, Arts W-5
Office hours: Fridays 10h – 11h30, Arts 260
Email: anja.bock2@mcgill.ca

COURSE DESCRIPTION
Installation art is ubiquitous today, with sculpture, design and architecture rolled into a single spatial “experience.” The catchphrase “implicates the viewer” is everywhere, alongside descriptive terms such as “site-specific,” “immersive” and “interactive.” How are we to understand the spatial experiences that contemporary art proposes? This course investigates key concepts in the “production” of space with a focus on art after 1960. By discussing the work of foundational thinkers of space and place, including De Certeau, Lefebvre, Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari, this course will provide students with the necessary vocabulary to think critically about how different spaces implicate the viewer and what the consequences might be for our understanding of social space, subjectivity, history and cultural production.

COURSE PREMISE
• That representations of space are correlated with representations of the subject, both developmentally and historically, and that this correlation is dialectical.

COURSE OBJECTIVES
• To engage with a selection of classic essays concerning spatial experience.
• To practice integrating theoretical material drawn from disciplines outside of art history with case studies drawn from contemporary art.
• To learn to ask questions that can propel personal research.
• To be able to discern sub-themes in contemporary art that concern subjectivity and spatial experience.

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Methods in Art History, McGill University

Methods in Art History (ARTH 305)

Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University, Winter 2014

Dr. Anja Bock

Lectures: Wednesdays and Fridays 14h30 – 16h00, Arts W215
Office hours: Fridays 13h00-14h00, Arts W260 (Dr. A. Vanhaelen’s office)
TA: Anne-Sophie Garcia

COURSE DESCRIPTION
This course is a window onto our discipline; we will see how different modes of inquiry have shaped and inspired what art historians do, why we do it and how. The aim of the course it to illuminate the analytical, political and cultural possibilities of a variety of approaches to art history. Different methods entail different kinds of questions and concerns. The course is an opportunity for students to ask themselves: which methods are best suited to your own developing understandings of what art is and why it matters?

The course consists of two lectures per week. Students need to come to class prepared to discuss the readings assigned for that week. Given the emphasis on methods – on how art historians approach a work of art – a number of case studies will be presented for group discussion in order that students may test different analytic tools and question their implications for art and art history.

COURSE PREMISE
The way we approach our study of a work of art determines what we will see, and therefore what we will take away from it.

LEARNING OBJECTIVE
To become familiar with methodological debates in the discourse of art history; to recognize that our own ideological and cultural situatedness as scholars determines the criteria and values we use to analyze art (that is, to become more self-reflexive).

ARTH 305 Syllabus Dr. A. Bock

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Abbas Akhavan: Beacon, Darling Foundry

Art Papers (Sep – Oct, 2012)

Abbas Akhavan, Beacon, 2012. Installation view with (from left) Envelope 2012, Mortar 2012, and Like a Bat Afraid of its Own Shadow 2012. Courtesy: the artist, Darling Foundry and the Third Line. Photo: Josée Pedneault.

Abbas Akhavan’s installation Beacon transforms the cavernous Darling Foundry into a slowly breathing, giant organism (March 15 to May 27, 2012). Lying prone on the floor is an undulating yellow “envelope,” a hot-air balloon alternately inflating to press itself against the brick walls, and deflating to form a flaccid pool of color. It rises up with a promise only to be cut off of its air supply and fall down to the floor repeatedly (Envelope, 2012).

This yellow sun of sorts is guarded by a pair of sculptural gate-keepers, two lions, albeit at the edge of life themselves. One is a mixed-media replica of the partly demolished and deeply symbolic Stone Lion of Hamadan (Mortar, 2012). Hamadan, which dates back to the 7th century BCE, was conquered repeatedly and in 931 CE the ruling dynasty ordered the destruction of the lion gates. They were dethroned and dismembered. In 1949 one of the ruins was raised again but there is no trace of the counterpart it was thought to once have.

Akhavan transports the lion to Montreal by way of mimesis and reunites it with its lost sibling, here figured as a stack of sand bags (Like a bat afraid of its own shadow, 2012). While the former is sensuous and inviting of touch, with a supple spine, wavy mane, and numerous fist-sized dells made from centuries of ritual use, the latter is obstructive, like a barricade or gun shelter. They look in opposite directions as though their clocks were out of synch.

The two sculptures, together with the rising and falling envelope of air, establish a strong visual relationship. Beacon brings to mind cycles of destruction and perseverance, war, nature, Mars and Eros. These layers of meaning are intrinsic to the work, deftly embedded by Akhavan’s choice of material. Yet they seem tangential, as though an attempt at diegesis would compromise the physical empathy the installation elicits, the melancholic sense of its efforted breath and tired organs in states of decay and atrophy.

“I have an iconoclastic relationship to making work. I don’t like creating new images or figuration,” states Akhavan, who would like his artwork to be experienced as though it were just happened upon unexpectedly. Its definition, operation and economy as “art” is subsequent to its discovery in the world of things among other things. When situated outdoors, this interpretive delay is easier to initiate, as in the audio recording of the bird songs Akhavan played outside the Vancouver Art Gallery (Landscape: For the Birds, 2009). But even within the context of a gallery, Akhavan succeeds in slowing down the influx of interpretive tools by deliberately withholding a clear message. This momentary pause in the process of signification allows the material reality of the installation to appear like a semiotically unmanageable monstrosity.

The distinction that Gérard Genette makes between an artwork’s immanence (its physical presence) and its transcendence (the experience it induces) is useful when thinking through Akhavan’s installation. Like the stone lion of Hamadan, the usage and symbolic value of which varied with every new conquest since Alexander the Great, an artwork’s significance is mutable – it exceeds its immanence over time and space, through displacement, replication and adaptation, for example. This “excess” is the “work” that an artwork accomplishes and cannot be separated from it. In the case of Beacon, it is as if the immanent and transcendent parts of the artwork operate in tandem, rendering the installation mute, then almost magical, battered and broken, and then heroic.

On the roof of the foundry Akhavan installed a large plywood stencil that casts a legible shadow on the facing brick wall at sunset (6:58/8:32, 2012). It reads “second nature.” Herein lay all the dualities Beacon mobilizes: rise/fall, absence/presence, nature/culture, original/copy, empty/full, immanence/transcendence.

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